Tribune Democrat: By David Hurst

By 1916, the United States boasted 32 national parks, preserving picturesque attractions nationwide such as Yellowstone’s Old Faithful geyser and Yosemite’s Granite Dome.

The trouble is, in the more than 40 years after the first park was designated, actual preservation was hit and miss.

Some of the parks were neglected.

Others were exploited.

A century ago next week, then-President Woodrow Wilson gave his signature to a law aimed at changing all of that.

The law officially formed the National Park Service, creating the agency still tasked today with maintaining the parks and enforcing laws, while preserving the stories behind what are now 58 national parks, 121 national monuments, national battlefields and dozens of other historic sites and memorials.

And this region certainly has its share. The Johnstown Flood National Memorial, Allegheny Portage Railroad National Memorial and Flight 93 National Memorial have all become landmark draws in the Cambria-Somerset region. And two Fayette County parks – Fort Necessity Battlefield in nearby Farmington and Friendship Hill National Historic Site in Point Marion – are within a two-hour drive.

The Tribune-Democrat will take a look at each of them in a series that runs through this week.

And the park service is hoping thousands of people from across the region – and beyond – will take a closer look, too, over the coming days, with free admission offered Aug. 25-28.

Early years

President Ulysses S. Grant made Yellowstone the nation’s first park in 1872 – and in the decades that followed, both national parks and cultural sites soon joined it.

The system grew mightily under then-President Theodore Roosevelt’s watch, with a handful of parks, 18 monuments and four national game refuges all added.

But with growth came complications, historical accounts show.

Hunters were slaying park bison, elk and other wildlife with little fear of consequences. 

And at America’s first national park, Yellowstone, visitors routinely poured powdered soap into geysers to hurry eruptions, author Rudyard Kipling wrote in dispatches to European newspapers.

In several cases, the Army was assigned to oversee major parks – but while they were fit to patrol property and enforce laws, they weren’t historians.

“You had parks starting to expand, monuments starting to develop ... but the parks were sort of standing alone out there,” said Keith Newlin, deputy superintendent for the National Park Service’s Western Pennsylvania District.

Soon, a millionaire industrialist and others like him, nature enthusiasts and journalists were building a campaign for the government to take action, according to park service accounts.

And in the summer of 1916, 

The National Park Service was born.

‘Pit’ falls, lessons

The park service’s mission of preserving both parks and its history has been a constant.

But it has also been an ever-evolving one, said Newlin.

And that’s true with both the stories told and park policy, he said.

In the early 1900s, wildlife often were the main attraction.

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